After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Tony Blair as British Prime Minister moved quickly and effectively to establish that the Al-Qaeda suicide attackers were not being driven by Islam but a perversion of it, that Islam was a religion of peace, and that Britain, the United States and other countries were not fighting against Islam but against terrorism.
As well as looking rather insincere in their supposed expertise, what our leaders are saying by claiming to know the essence of Islam is that there is one true way with Islam, and they know what it is. This is also what the zealots on the other side are claiming, but the zealots also personally follow the path they advocate, for what is after all their religion, whether you or me or anyone sees it as somehow ‘true’ or ‘false’. Who would you believe if you were looking for guidance on the real Islam: the version presented by non-Muslim leaders like Blair, Cameron and Obama, or that of practising, committed Muslims who claim to be representing and defending Islam and Muslims and are practising what they preach? It is not difficult to see how devout Muslims suspicious of the motives of ‘the West’ and brought up on a diet of anti-Western propaganda, might lean towards the latter.
Like Christianity, Islam has long and overt associations with violence, conquest and absolutism, from well before Osama Bin Laden or Islamic State appeared on the scene. Just thirty years after the Prophet Mohammed’s death the doctrine of takfeer (condemnation or excommunication) was introduced by a purist group called the Kharijites, decreeing that those who did not follow God’s word precisely were ‘kuffar’, infidels deserving of death. In AH 60 (661 AD), Islam’s fourth caliph Ali (who was himself renowned for the sword he wielded) was killed during Ramadan by a Kharijite using a poisoned sword, with his assassin proclaiming, ‘There is no authority except God, oh Ali, not you!’ Robert Lacey, who has written so well on modern Saudi Arabia, writes that Ali “became one of the earliest victims of Islamic terrorism” and in dying became the first martyr of the Shia, “starting them down their emotion-laden path of sorrow and faith” and thereby inaugurating the bloody Sunni-Shia split that remains today.
For more on not-dissimilar themes, see Identity Politics and the left page.